Each Day, a New Wrinkle

It seems like every day this week brought a new wrinkle to the efforts to stop monster Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes. Here’s a partial rundown:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court denied Michigan’s request for an emergency order to close the locks in the Chicago sewer system to stop bighead and silver carp from entering Lake Michigan. But the Court has not yet ruled on Michigan’s request for a long-term solution, the permanent hydrologic separation of Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River system.
  • The same day, we learned from the Army Corps of Engineers that new eDNA samples indicated that the invasive carp had gotten farther than anybody thought: past the O’Brien Lock, and even into Calumet Harbor, a bay in Lake Michigan itself.
  • The White House’s top environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, announced a “carp summit” would be held in the next few weeks. Midwest governors will be invited, but we don’t know about anybody else. The summit won’t accomplish much if it doesn’t include key Great Lakes stakeholders, so I hope they (we) are included.
  • A bipartisan group of members of Congress introduced bills in the U.S. House and Senate to require the federal government to close the locks and block the Chicago canals immediately to stop the carp from advancing any further. Rep. Camp (R-MI) led the charge in the House with H.R. 4472, imaginatively titled the “CLOSE ALL ROUTES and PREVENT ASIAN CARP TODAY” Act and also know as the CARP Act. Senator Stabenow introduced something similar in the Senate.

Taken together, I think these developments lead to three conclusions:

First, the debate over whether the invasive carp are where the eDNA says they are is virtually over. If a DNA test is positive, then a live carp was there shortly before the DNA sample was taken. How do we know that? Because the scientists say that eDNA samples degrade after 48 hours and they probably come from the stomach contents of live carp. That means a live carp was likely swimming in the area the DNA was found within 48 hours of the taking of the sample. So dumping of dead fish or parts of dead fish, or the discharge of ballast water containing carp residue, is highly unlikely to produce those results. On this point scientists from all sides of the legal debate are pretty much in agreement.

Second, the question now moves on to whether there are reproducible populations of bighead and silver carp in the Chicago canals and the Great Lakes, and if not, when such populations might arrive. Here again, scientists from across the board are largely in agreement that the populations of carp in the canals and the lake aren’t yet at reproducible levels; the inability to find live fish indicate the population densities must be very low. But the scientists don’t know when such high levels might be reached. So that’s where the uncertainty lies over the risk the carp pose and the solutions we should pursue.

Third and finally, I think our best hope for getting action quickly at this point is the White House Summit. I’m not suggesting backing off from the litigation or legislative options, but the White House Summit now is likely to get results faster. President Obama and his top advisors are from Chicago; they know the players; and they are committed to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes (notwithstanding some of the statements the Solicitor General made in the brief before the Supreme Court). With their guidance and the full participation of all the important stakeholders, the Summit could craft a response that is rapid and effective. What we don’t know is whether the Summit will include the right players. Of course the states are essential participants, but so are key cities (like Chicago), the sewer district, environmental organizations, and business interests. Truly effective action will need to include all the stakeholders.

Stay tuned for what’s likely to another roller coaster ride next week….

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